Religious group travel, with an emphasis on the Holy Land, has proven to be the “the right niche” for a travel seller who took a leap of faith by opening a home-based agency four years ago.
“The right niche just sort of found me,” said Melani Roewe, owner of Travel Overtures, in Guthrie, Okla. “I grew up traveling and I love other cultures.”
Roewe promotes Travel Overtures as the “Home of Joyful Catholic Journeys” and “Joyful Christian Journeys,” noting that most people don’t understand the difference between the two.
“I explain that all Catholics are Christian, but not all Christians are Catholic,” she said. “They’re different markets. A Protestant group may conduct a prayer on the bus, but not much else; whereas the Catholics have Mass and communion daily.”
Focus on Catholic groups
Although she hopes to break into the Protestant market, Roewe’s business at present consists primarily of Catholic groups. She and her husband are very active in the Catholic Church, through their local parish as well as the Oklahoma Knights of Columbus.
Over the past 12 years, they’ve met numerous members of the clergy and church hierarchy, including cardinals and bishops. Roewe realized she could build a business around those contacts.
“I began getting in touch with clergy members to ask if they might be interested in taking a religious pilgrimage,” Rowe said. “I told them they could travel for free. All they had to do was help promote the trip and pack their bags.”
Right operator is key
Early on, Roewe worked with an overseas tour operator that delivered less-than-desirable results. “I learned the hard way that it isn’t worth the hassle to work with a foreign operator to Israel. There are a number of good operators in the U.S. market that do a fantastic job.”
She also realized that arranging a group trip to Israel involves a little more hand-holding than with other destinations. Clients are eager to have Roewe accompany the group, due to her past experience in visiting the country.
“It’s no secret how much I enjoy traveling to Israel,” she said. “There is something about the country that makes you leave part of your heart there.”
Still, she holds firm to a policy of accompanying only groups of 30 or more.
Whether or not Roewe joins the group, all of her departures are led by a local priest. Group members come from Oklahoma and also from out of state. And not everyone is Catholic.
“Sometimes people in the group may have friends or even spouses who aren’t Catholic,” Rowe said. “All faiths are welcome. There is no proselytizing. But we do have Mass every day.”
Actually, Roewe believes that having members of different faiths along can be beneficial. “It promotes inter-religious dialogue, which I truly believe is a way to world peace.”
Marketing a religious message
Marketing is key to any niche travel agency, and Roewe’s business is no exception. Her goal is to send at least two groups per year to Israel, a strategy that requires continuous outreach.
Roewe’s marketing plan includes a website listing all pending trips. She also sends out a monthly newsletter to her mailing list.
Once a group is formed, she creates a dedicated email list for that group; prints a trip brochure and distributes it to parishes around the community; sends press releases to the two Catholic newspapers in Oklahoma and also sends out an e-blast to every parish in the state for inclusion in the Sunday church bulletins.
Additional marketing efforts include parish “Trip Promotion” nights, with early booking discounts as an enticement. She also tries to coordinate a Pre-Trip Group meeting.
“I go over packing details, local customs, answer questions and show a video of the destination. The pastor also introduces himself, and talks about his experience on previous pilgrimages to the Holy Land.”
Roewe also serves as a guest speaker for church groups and social clubs.
“I offer the group chair a list of topics to choose from regarding travel in general. I do ask that I be allowed to have brochures and flyers on display, perhaps a looping video,” said Roewe who also exhibits at religious conferences and conventions.
Despite the stresses of sending groups off to the Middle East, Roewe finds her business extremely rewarding. “I love church travel,” she said. “It is much more than simply an affinity group. There’s already a bond there. Everything just works and everyone comes back as a family.”